Tulane scores 16 late points, beats USC 46-45 in Cotton Bowl

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Alex Bauman knew right away he had scored probably the biggest touchdown in Tulane history, even after the true freshman tight end’s contested 6-yard catch at the end of the Cotton Bowl was initially ruled incomplete.

“I kept my hands under the ball,” he said.

The long replay review proved Bauman made the catch with 9 seconds left, even with linebacker Eric Gentry draped over him as they rolled over in the end zone. That capped a frantic finish for the 14th-ranked Green Wave in a 46-45 win over Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams and No. 8 Southern California.

“I might have had a heart attack,” Tulane coach Willie Fritz said on the field moments after the game ended.

“If you told us before the game that we had one drive, one opportunity to go down there and win the game, then we’d take that 10 out of 10 times,” quarterback Michael Pratt said.

The Green Wave (12-2) scored 16 points in the final 4:07, the game-winning touchdown coming after they got the ball back following a safety, to complete an FBS-record 10-win turnaround after going 2-10 last season.

“Huge win for the program, huge win for the university, huge win for the city,” Fritz said.

Williams was 37-for-52 passing for 462 yards and a Cotton Bowl-record five touchdowns, exactly one month after suffering a hamstring injury in USC’s loss to Utah in the Pac-12 championship game that kept the Trojans (11-3) from making the four-team College Football Playoff.

Tyjae Spears ran for 205 yards, his FBS-best eighth consecutive 100-yard game. His career-best fourth touchdown started the final scoring surge for American Athletic Conference champion Tulane, which was in the New Year’s Six game as the highest-ranked Group of Five team.

The Green Wave played in their most significant bowl since the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day in 1940, when they were still in the Southeastern Conference, and it was their biggest bowl win since the 1935 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, where their campus is located.

After Spears’ 4-yard TD run with 4:07 left, the Green Wave opted to kick deep instead of trying an onside kick. Mario Williams signaled for a fair catch, but fumbled the ball out of bounds at the 1. Two plays later, defensive tackle Patrick Jenkins met Austin Jones in the end zone and smothered him for a safety.

“We were debating whether or not to onside kick,” said Fritz, the seventh-year Tulane coach. “Obviously it was great that we got it on the 1 and got the safety.”

Pratt completed only 8 of 17 passes for 234 yards, but had two 24-yard completions on that final drive after the safety. He also scrambled 8 yards on a fourth-and-6 play.

The first 24-yard completion to Bauman converted a fourth-and-10. Deuce Watts then held on despite a crushing hit from a defender that left both of them on the ground after a 24-yard gain to the 6 with 18 seconds left.

After Williams followed coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma, the Trojans matched the biggest turnaround in school history despite the coach’s first loss in six games at AT&T Stadium. Their debut was a seven-win improvement over last season’s 4-8 record.

“I’ve rarely at the end of the year felt so conflicted,” Riley said. “On one hand, sick about the way we finished the season. … We lost three games this year. We lost two of them on the last play of the game. And we lost one in the fourth quarter in the championship game when we had a chance to go to the College Football Playoff.”

The Trojans never trailed until that final touchdown. Williams threw TD passes on each of their first two possessions. A 9-yarder to Michael Jackson III capped the game-opening 9-minute drive, the longest by time for USC this season, and Terrell Bynum‘s 3-yard catch capped a 95-yard drive early to make it 14-0 in the second quarter.

Tulane tied the game at 14 on Pratt’s touchdown pass to Jha'Quan Jackson, an 87-yard catch-and-run. But USC scored twice in the final 2:21 of the first half, on Raleek Brown‘s 39-yard run and Brenden Rice‘s 4-yard catch with 12 seconds left.

Rice, the son of Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice, had career bests with six catches for 174 yards and two touchdowns. Tahj Washington had five catches for 109 yards.

Williams got hurt on a 59-yard run early in the Pac-12 championship game loss to Utah on Dec. 2, but still threw for 363 yards and three TDs while finishing that game. USC’s only other loss was also to the Utes, who had a game-winning 2-point conversion at home in mid-October.

The Cotton Bowl was Williams’ third game this season with five TD passes. His only interception set up Tulane’s long game-tying TD. On a scramble with open field in front of him, Williams instead threw off his back foot and was picked off by Jarius Monroe.

“It’s going to linger. You lose the last game of the season, go into the offseason, burns,” Williams said. “Don’t have another game after. It’s going to burn.”

GOING LONG

There were 11 plays of at least 30 yards – six by Tulane (two passes and four runs) and five by USC (four passes, one run). The 87-yard catch-and-run by Jackson for the Green Wave matched the longest touchdown in the 87 Cotton Bowl games played.

UP NEXT

Tulane opens next fall with back-to-back home games, Sept. 2 against South Alabama and Sept. 9 against SEC team Ole Miss.

USC gets an early start to Riley’s second season, Aug. 26 at home against San Jose State.

SMU QB Tanner Mordecai says he’s transferring to Wisconsin

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MADISON, Wis. — Quarterback Tanner Mordecai announced on social media Friday that he is transferring from SMU to Wisconsin.

Mordecai tweeted the news two weeks after playing in SMU’s 24-23 New Mexico Bowl loss to BYU. Mordecai threw his school-record 72nd career touchdown pass for SMU in that game.

“I could not be more fired up to play at a school with rich history and a winning culture,” Mordecai said. “Let’s ride!”

Mordecai also thanked SMU’s faculty, staff and program. He said: “I have made relationships that I will cherish and carry for the rest of my life.”

After spending 2018-20 as a reserve quarterback for Oklahoma, Mordecai transferred to SMU and was the Mustangs’ starter the last two seasons.

He threw for 3,628 yards with a school-record 39 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 2021. Mordecai followed that by passing for 3,524 yards with 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions this season. He also had two touchdown runs each of the last two seasons.

New Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell is bringing in Phil Longo from North Carolina as offensive coordinator, though that hire hasn’t officially been announced. Longo helped former North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell and current Tar Heels quarterback Drake Maye put up huge numbers the last few seasons.

Mordecai is the second quarterback to announce plans to transfer to Wisconsin since Fickell’s arrival. Former Oklahoma quarterback Nick Evers tweeted two weeks ago that he had committed to Wisconsin.

Graham Mertz, Wisconsin’s starting quarterback the last three seasons, entered the transfer portal in early December and plans to play for Florida next season.

Tulane’s Pratt, Spears last game together in Cotton Bowl vs. USC

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ARLINGTON, Texas – There was plenty of speculation about Michael Pratt‘s future and whether the Tulane quarterback who drew interest from Power Five schools ever really considered going into the transfer portal after the Green Wave landed a spot in the Cotton Bowl.

“When you have success, opportunities present themselves, but I wouldn’t say it was super tempting because this is my squad,” Pratt, the third-year starter, said without offering specifics. “These are my guys, and the coaches that recruited me into the culture and everything, coach (Willie) Fritz.”

Pratt has already said he is coming back for his senior season, and physical running back Tyjae Spears stayed for one last game before the NFL prospect heads to the Senior Bowl. The explosive runner said he never considered opting out Tulane’s most significant bowl game in decades.

“Man, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” Spears said of the bowl that comes a season after Tulane went 2-10.

“I think it goes to show the brotherhood we’ve built and family, and not wanting to walk out on each other,” said center Sincere Haynesworth, one of the team captains. “Just the biggest game Tulane has had in a long time, and it just goes to show what we’ve put behind us and how much we all care about this and how bad we want that.”

The American Athletic Conference champion Green Wave play Southern California on Monday in a matchup of 11-2 teams at the home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. Their nine-win improvement has already matched an FBS record.

Tulane, which played in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day 1940, finished as this season’s highest-ranked Group of Five team (16th in the final College Football Playoff rankings). A 45-28 win over UCF in the AAC championship game avenged its only loss since September.

Pratt had 442 total yards and five touchdowns in the title game. Spears rushed for 199 yards with a 60-yard TD, which included a leap over a tripped-up teammate, while extending his FBS-best active to streak to seven 100-yard games in a row.

“We’re really fortunate on offense because our best players are our best leaders,” first-year Tulane offensive coordinator Jim Svoboda said. “Those are two of them.”

Pratt has thrown for 2,776 yards with 25 touchdowns and five interceptions this season. He has had only two passes picked off over the past eight games.

The quarterback from Florida started Tulane’s final nine games in 2020, when he threw for 1,806 yards and his 20 TD passes were the most nationally by a true freshman. He has thrown a touchdown in all but one of his 33 career games, including the first 17.

In the Green Wave’s 2021 season opener against Oklahoma, which was moved to Norman from the Tulane campus because of Hurricane Ida, Pratt completed 27 of 44 passes for 296 yards and three touchdowns. The Sooners’ defensive coordinator then was Alex Grinch, who went with Lincoln Riley to USC after that season.

“Tough competitor. I think he has anticipation skills, in terms of throwing the football. Willing to stand in the pocket versus some pressure situations,” Grinch said of Pratt. “Nothing but impressed. That looked like probably a championship football team that maybe was on the brink. It’s easy to say now, connecting the dots that way. But certainly you saw evidence of that. And you got a quarterback, you got a shot. And they certainly have one.”

That was Spears’ first game back from an ACL injury that cut short his sophomore year. He had only six carries for 20 yards and caught three passes for six yards against the Sooners, but did go on to run for 863 yards that season.

After being limited last spring by a pulled hamstring, and still rusty early this season, Spears broke through to become the first non-quarterback named the AAC’s offensive player of the year. He has 1,064 yards rushing over the past seven games while averaging 7.8 yards per carry.

“I’m having more fun than I’ve had before,” Spears said.

“He’s an awesome dude,” Pratt said. “He comes to practice every single day going 110 percent. His attitude and effort every day, he’s super consistent. There’s never a day that he’s not the same guy.”